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The Self-Exploration of an Egyptian-American Woman

Nadia Azmy is an Egyptian writer and art director living in NYC. Below, Azmy goes on an explorational journey of beauty standards in the East & West.

I waited until exactly 8:30 in the morning for my mother to leave our house for work so that I could sneak my way into her makeup drawer. Usually, I would not have gone through all the trouble, but I knew what I had in mind was off limits according to my mother’s rules, and something was weighing heavy on my 11-year-old heart.

I was only in the sixth grade when a classmate, let us call him Ali, decided to direct everyone’s attention to my unruly eyebrows and mustache, humiliating me.

With just one sentence, Ali changed the way I saw myself for years to follow.

So, with the humiliation fresh on my mind and tears rolling down my cheeks, I took my mother’s tweezers and went to work.

When all was said and done, I did not recognize the girl on the other side of the mirror, and that’s how I preferred things to be for a while.

Before I get into the story, it is important to note that having grown up in an Egyptian-American household, I have always felt like my emotional and physical identities were quite conflicted and tested. Although this diasporic struggle can also be defined as a generational difference, each generation and each individual will face this explorational journey differently.

My appearance is driven by my cultures, and it has been challenged by multiple standards. As a woman trying to navigate in spaces where physical appearance is a leading factor in success and growth, I have been challenged as an Arab-American woman and as an American-Arab woman. Although I have felt as though I did not fill any of those buckets enough to properly represent either of those cultures, nor have I personally identified with their standards of beauty, I have continuously struggled to meet these unfathomable expectations.

While Western beauty standards heavily influence the beauty standards of the Middle East, the Arab Woman is challenged with a deep-rooted self-loathing for appearances that are far from what is natural to Her.

A few weeks ago, as I spent the days roaming the streets of Cairo, I could not help but notice the apparently tan women covered in face powder several shades lighter than their own, paired with colored contact lenses.

Upon entering a local supermarket, I noticed a range of packages promoting fair skin — from soaps, to creams, to masks. Along with the yearning to achieve unattainable Western beauty standards, the Arab Woman has also been faced by the beauty standards of The East: to constantly be ridden of body hair, to be properly groomed, etc.. Although there have been shifts within the community to rid of these impossible standards of The West and The East, one cannot help but be reminiscent of the generational gap between those whom are cognizant of accepting themselves fully and truly and those who are fascinated with past beauty standards.

Upon my return to the States, I received an Instagram DM with a follower’s thoughts on my semitic nose, noting that it’s physical appearance was too big.

I could not help but feel empathetic.

I was empathetic for the many women, like myself, who, even today, face harsh criticism due to their semitic appearances and are socially pressured to undergo surgical procedures as well as non-surgical procedures, such as painful laser sessions for their darker body hair, which can cause emotional and physical devastation. I couldn’t help but feel empathetic for the individual that sent me the message, who was probably driven by improper standards themselves. I was empathetic for myself, because 11-year-old Nadia, would have googled “nose doctor near me”.

Following my tweezer incident at age 11, I underwent laser hair removal, Japanese hair straightening, and periodic professional eyebrow waxing. All before my 13th birthday.

I would live amongst these unattainable expectations for years to come until I moved to New York City in 2015.

During my first year in New York City, I refused to buy a mirror. I was even less active on social media. I dedicated 365 days to my self-acceptance and love.

Living in New York City amongst a diverse community of those who have also faced and overcome obstacles of traditional and unachievable beauty standards, it is comforting to know that you do not stick out like a sore thumb when embracing your natural state. For people elsewhere, social media has emulated cities such as New York by creating a safe space for individuals who want to celebrate their differences without shame and without filters.

We are all affected by our respective beauty standards, whether you’re the girl with tweezers in her hand hacking away at her eyebrows or the boy who regurgitates and redirects the self-hate that was instilled in him, we are generationally inflicted with these notions that we need to change ourselves to be worthy of our own self-acceptance.

As a daughter of the East and a daughter of the West, 15 years after butchering my eyebrows, I finally feel comfortable in my skin, in my nose, in my hair, and in my body.

Images courtesy of Nadia Azmy

Stay tuned to Milk for more on international beauty.

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